A Language for Herself: A Conversation with Ye Chun




I WAS ONLY pages into Hao, the debut short story collection by Ye Chun, when I knew I was reading a master of the form. That knowledge had been building up with each of her glimmering, knife-sharp sentences, but the moment where it clicked for me was just over halfway through the story “Stars” (about a grad student learning to speak again after a stroke), when the American speech therapist mispronounces the protagonist’s name and asks her to repeat it back to him. “Still, she mimicked him,” we’re told. “She was learning to say her own name in the wrong way.” The moment hits at the heart of this thing we call identity, and for the particular character it acts as a hinge in her life, a shocking point of transformation.

Short stories are short — that’s their angle, their only formal limitation — and the best writers in the genre see this as both a strength and a set of challenges. Can I make a smaller piece of fiction have the same emotional impact as a novel? Can its sentences be as focused and brilliant as poetry? Can I resist stringing the events along a line of plot that makes the story feel like paint-by-numbers? A great story collection answers these questions in the affirmative and showcases individual stories that seem as if they’ve always lived together, integral in their own way, as if they were, to misquote Tobias Wolff, strangers in the same novel. Hao is the type of great collection I’m talking about.

The stories in Hao range through centuries, from the time of the Yellow Emperor to the present day, and from China to the United States, nearly always centering Chinese or Chinese American mothers at moments of great strain or transformation — as evidenced in the story mentioned above. Ye Chun, both a poet and translator, who has written extensively in both English and Chinese (including a novel written in the latter), is keenly interested in language as a tool of communication, power, and understanding. A white neighbor uses the phrase “anchor baby” while talking to a woman about to give birth in a strange land, setting off a drama that is both terrifying and mundane. In the title story, word games are played between a mother and daughter as a method of survival while being punished by Mao’s Red Guards. And in the unforgettable story “Gold Mountain,” the San Francisco anti-Chinese riots of 1877 force a mother and her children inside, into silence. Above all this is an author in full control of her powers, plumbing the depths of her characters, finding the nuance and mystery of each moment through language both precise and transporting.

I spoke by email to Ye Chun in August, exchanging questions and answers during an unsettling time as schools were starting up again, the Delta variant was on the rise, and the long hot summer refused to end.

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BRIAN CASTLEBERRY: One of the things that especially impressed me about Hao is that there’s this incredible sense of wholeness and integrity. Were you thinking of it as a single work as you wrote?

YE CHUN: I knew from early on that the book would be about motherhood, a subject I was compelled to explore as a new mother. The form, however, changed over time. Initially, I thought it would be a book of poems focusing on my own maternal experience. But soon, there was a craving to build community through this writing, to connect and merge with other women and mothers, even if they were imagined or semi-imagined. As the narratives expanded, the form shifted too. Short fiction, rather than poetry, became the compatible medium. It was also a new medium for me, which I could approach with a beginner’s mind.

The individual pieces gathered up quite organically. Each arose out of some necessity. Each embodied certain perplexities or predicaments I couldn’t turn away from. Several took years to write: they were put aside, picked up again, broken apart, reassembled. The wholeness you asked about, which I’m glad to hear, perhaps partially came with the repeated revising, and partially with the converging of different pairs: Chineseness/Americanness; Chinese language/English language; individual life/institutional structure; personal will/political ideology. I was interested to see how these seemingly dualistic pairs conflict, intersect, and/or integrate.

For me, the most unifying and integral feature of the book is the use of oracle bone signs as co-titles for each piece. It’s something I decided to do from the moment I knew there was a book. These signs function for me like dotting eyes on painted dragons; without them, the book wouldn’t have come alive.

A lot of these mothers are suddenly put on the spot — by raging mobs, by an oppressive regime, by nosy neighbors. What was on your mind as you wrote these characters in regard to maternity and how children change an individual’s life?

Motherhood can be a lonely experience and can come with great fears and confusions. Writing these stories, in the most direct sense, was to help me face those fears and see what they were made of. When I created the characters, I became them, and their sufferings became mine. Maybe I wanted to see how we (my characters and I) would be tested in those very likely situations, and if we would be strong and supple enough to come out unbroken.

On a more cognizant level, I intended to write against stereotypes. All my main characters in the book are Chinese or Chinese American women, who are often typecast as passive victims, or dragon ladies, or tiger moms. I didn’t want my characters to be reducible to any categories. Although they find themselves in difficult circumstances, in systems that do not often have their interest in mind, they are not passive. They resist, confront, and, sometimes, arrive at moments of transcendence.

Tell us a little about the word hao. It’s especially significant in the title story and in “Stars,” but it seems like the concept is important throughout the book, almost as if it were being carried along by each of these characters. What do you want readers to know about the word and its usage?

Hao is the pinyin of the character 好. It’s perhaps the most common word in Chinese, meaning good, well, okay, or as a verb, to love, to like. Before I looked up the oracle bone sign for the word, I had thought it was a compound of the character 女, meaning woman, and 子, man. What I found out was that the sign had been, up to the ninth century BCE, a kneeling figure, a woman, holding a child. I knew then that the sign in its original form would be the title of the book.

The sign holds a myriad of feelings and connotations for me. Although kneeling was the proper sitting posture for ancient Chinese, regardless of gender or status, to represent women with this one posture seems to accentuate the social immobility of women, if not their deferential position. Holding, on the other hand, suggests fortitude, resilience, and connection. The sign altogether feels both sorrowful and triumphant to me. It’s big and generative enough to evoke the image of the earth holding all beings. It also invokes the Buddhist saying, “All beings have been our mother.” In that sense, all characters in the book, including the male and child characters, have maternal qualities within them.

To me, it feels like language — living and breathing — is a character in the room with the others in your stories. What drew you to language as a theme here?

Language is this concrete thing we encounter all the time. It has the power to mislead, validate, enrage, energize, and so on. It can be robbed from one or inflicted upon another. For a bilingual immigrant writer like myself, language can have additional complications. On a technical level, my two languages have the tendency to compete and rub against each other, which can be exhausting if I attempt to retain both equally. On an ideological level, I have to ask questions: If I write about China in English to an English-language audience, is my writing considered self-portrait or portrait of another? Do I consciously or unconsciously self-censer or curry favor when I write in one language versus the other? As much as I wish to think it’s all a matter of free will, it’s not unbound from external forces or political implications.

When I first started this book, I was writing it in Chinese. Then I went back to school to get a doctoral degree and had to use English so intensively my Chinese became secondary. I had no time to employ my old strategy of self-translation either. Instead, I found myself writing directly in English. When the writing went well, I forgot I was writing in a non-native language. But oftentimes, my self-conscious mind noticed the abrasion rather than the ease; it worried about inadequacy and aphasia. All those linguistic anxieties inevitably found their way into the book.

But through writing this book, I have come to a place where I find the mind is spacious enough for the two languages to coexist. Even though I’m still writing in English, I do not exclude the possibility of returning to Chinese and finding it still there. Also, I do not take for granted the benefits of writing in a second language: it makes me regard words as “tender buttons,” to use Gertrude Stein’s term, illuminating objects that generate power. It also shifts the way I look at my native language: the words ebbing and flowing, carrying millenniums of history, demand so much respect. 

Those thoughts on languages coexisting are so insightful, and so evident in the collection — maybe one of its intertwining themes. That reminds me about your work as a poet and translator. How did those skills help to shape this book?

Poetry for me is about being present. About staying in a moment and becoming spacious with it and conveying that spaciousness with the right words. When the moment is explicitly about a character in a particular situation, then I’m writing fiction. Though not quite the same as poetry, fiction writing calls for a similar kind of meditative presence. It involves the emptying out of preconceived ideas while tuning in to a more encompassing consciousness, and like you said, looking at certain questions for different angles.

My practice in translation perhaps helped me to make the language of the book more exact. Much of my poetry writing had to do with self-translation: I translated drafts of a poem back and forth between Chinese and English to arrive at a draft that I believed to be the finest in terms of sense and sound. Even though I wrote this book directly in English, that habitual seeking for a kind of interlingual resonance and precision was probably still at work.

You wrote a novel in Chinese called Peach Tree in the Sea. What can you tell us about writing in one language versus another? And would you ever want to translate the novel?

I don’t know if the novel will be translated or not, but I know I don’t want to do it myself. I would be tempted to revise or rewrite it if I do. I wrote the novel over a decade ago, and my sensibility has certainly changed since then. I’d rather leave it as it is, because once I decided it was done, the characters are out in the world and no longer for me to meddle with.

Writing a novel is like living in a parallel world. You get to know your characters so well you still feel tender toward them years after. Writing short stories doesn’t involve that kind of chronic obsession. I imagine a character in a particular predicament. I am in it with her, and after a while, we both move on.

The process of writing in one language versus another is not all that different. It all begins with the wuwei stage, in which most of the good stuff is generated. I use the Daoist idea of wuwei here because writing at this stage is an action free from strivings or conceptions or expectations. It’s just focusing on a moment and writing down whatever comes to mind. Words I think I’ve forgotten or those I think I’ve never possessed can sometimes emerge with ease during this state of writing. But the editing and polishing stage is not quite the same. When I write in Chinese, I oftentimes only need to read a sentence out loud to know if it feels right. With English, however, besides reading out loud, I need to look up in a dictionary from time to time to make sure I do not misuse an idiom or a preposition. 

One story that I keep coming back to is “Anchor Baby.” In it, a man has used the phrase in a question moments before the action begins, and our protagonist, a pregnant woman, tries her best to navigate an overwhelmingly uncomfortable situation. It’s all very angular and focused without losing the depth of character. Can you talk about that one?

I started this story soon after Trump was elected. His outrageous display of racism and sexism prompted me to imagine a situation like the one in the story. A Chinese woman with certain ideas about America comes to give birth to her child in this country, while an American man attempts to reduce her to a mere idea and reduce the child she carries to a dehumanizing term. I put the woman right in the middle of the conflict because the urgency and precarity of the situation doesn’t allow circumventing. It’s as if the question the man poses to her puts them on the edge of a cliff, and in this critical and expanding moment, both of them must learn who they really are.

Maybe because of my previous practice in poetry and novel, I think of the short fiction form as a hybrid of the two. Like poetry, it draws energy from compression, and like novel, it allows characters to be known in concrete terms. The challenge is to make the characters come alive with sparse yet resonant details and render the details with precise, pared-down language. I found much of my revision had to do with trimming and sharpening, with the hope that every word I kept in the final draft would matter.

I’m especially interested in what you have to say about your process of “trimming and sharpening” while still getting at characters in “concrete terms.” I think readers will agree that you meet these goals perfectly in Hao. “Crazy English” comes to mind as a good example. Can you tell us more about your aesthetic approach? Were you inspired by certain authors, or have other influences led you here?

When I was working on Hao, a book I often returned to was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I especially admired the piece “Liminal: The Little Man.” For a while, I kept trying to figure out how the story was made even though I knew it must have been made, first of all, in the kind of wuwei state I described earlier. The story was not reproducible, and I did not attempt to write something just like it. But the spontaneity, the fun and freedom emanated from the writing would get me excited about writing all over again. Stories in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son had a similar effect on me. When I felt stuck, I reread my favorite pieces or passages and the joy of writing would come back again.

Another quality these stories share is their lyrical intensity. In them, scenes are rendered concrete but never stagnant; they shift and move with velocity. There’s a capacious interplay between what’s stated and what’s left out. Without “trimming” what’s better left for conjecture, and “sharpening” what must be retained, these stories wouldn’t have held the kind of energy and acuity that do not diminish with rereading. It was a quality I appreciated and hoped to generate in my own stories.

The stories are set in different times over hundreds of years, with characters in both China and the United States. Did you find yourself researching a lot as you wrote?

The idea of motherhood is related to questions about history, lineage, tradition, and legacy. I wrote the first historical piece, “A Drawer,” early on. It’s set in the 1940s wartime China and based on my maternal grandmother. My daughter cried much when she was an infant. There is the theory that in their preverbal stage, a baby carries memories of all their forebears or past lives. I felt as if my daughter was remembering and lamenting something with her inexplicable crying. I started to think about my maternal grandmother who had passed away when I was still a child. What life had been like for her, pregnant with my mother, while her husband fought in the war and would later abandon her. She was also illiterate, unable to turn to a written language for solace, the way I tend to do. So I imagined her draw to invent a language for herself.

The story, “Signs,” follows up on the idea of drawing and invention. It’s a retelling of the creation myth of the Chinese written language, set in the semi-mystical Yellow Emperor era over 4,000 ago. I wrote motherhood into the legend to both honor and reconnect with the root of my mother tongue in a more intimate way.

The “Gold Mountain” story was among the last pieces I completed for the book. My paternal great-great-grandfather had come to the American West to build the transcontinental railroad across the Sierra in the 1860s. He stayed for two decades before returning to China. Though I don’t know much about his life except for a few basic facts, he was more than likely in San Francisco when the 1877 anti-Chinese riot took place. Living amid the recent violence against Asian and Asian American people, I saw many parallels between the past and the present. This story, not really based on my own ancestor, is an homage to a precursor immigrant mother who has to find courage to claim a space in this country, something many of us continue to do.

Structurally, this historical story set in US balances those set in China. Having lived almost equally long in both countries, I wanted a kind of symmetry for the book in which the Chinese stories and American stories could intertwine and complement each other.

As to research, I did it for most of the stories in the book, extensively in some cases. Research didn’t just help me get the facts right; it sometimes inspired where the stories were going.

The final story, about the legendary figure Cangjie, is a bit of a departure. He is tasked with creating a language of signs and teaching “it to other people, so all shall know what a sign represents.” I found the story surprisingly moving, and for me, it did such a good job gathering up the earlier stories and highlighting the threads running from character to character. A perfect ending. In the end, what do you most want readers to take away from their experience with Hao?

I thank my agent, Caroline Eisenmann, for suggesting that I put the story at the end of the collection. I had initially placed it at the beginning to contextualize the oracle bone signs co-titling each piece. Caroline is right: it’s best for the story to serve as the finale of the book. And I’m glad you agree. I hope readers will find the last image of Cangjie helping his mother up evocative. But all in all, I don’t really have any expectations as to what readers would take away from Hao. Once it’s out there, its reception is out of my control. But of course, as a writer, it’s always lovely to find readers connect with something in my work.

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Brian Castleberry’s debut novel, Nine Shiny Objects, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and an Indie Next selection and was long-listed for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His shorter work has been published in Narrative, Day One, LitHub, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

 

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